Will Solar Power Ever Replace Oil in the US?

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Is the United States going to replace oil and fossil fuels with natural solar and wind powered technologies? It’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when.

But the answer to when is, most likely, not for quite some time.

To have a better idea where our nation’s renewable resource movement is headed, it’s important to see how far we have already come.

Solar power’s meteoric rise

In 1839, nineteen-year-old French scientist Edmond Becquerel discovered the photovoltaic effect while experimenting with an electrolytic cell placed in an electricity-conducting solution. The photovoltaic effect describes the physical process through which a solar cell converts sunlight into electricity and has been the foundational key to solar power technology.

Over a century later, in 1954, photovoltaic technology reached the U.S. when Daryl Chapin, Calvin Fuller, and Gerald Pearson developed the silicon photovoltaic (PV) cell, the first solar cell capable of converting enough of the sun’s energy into power strong enough to run everyday electrical equipment. This new solar cell, which had a massive impact on solar power production, was just 4% energy efficient. Within years, however, the energy efficiency of these PV cells grew exponentially.

Though scientists have yet to achieve a conversion rate higher than 32.3%, the fact that PV cell efficiency more than quadrupled in just four decades is a testament to the growth of solar power.

The future of solar power and other sustainable resources

It’s no surprise that the world’s total energy demand is on the rise. In 2015, the International Energy Agency (IEA) reported that the U.S. consumed 79.411 quadrillion British-thermal-units (Btu) in fossil fuels like coal, natural gas and petroleum; by 2040, the IEA expects this number to increase by 35% to reach upwards of 106.58 quadrillion Btu.

However, the IEA also hinted at the fact that we could potentially see an enormous increase in the amount of available renewable electricity resources in the coming decades. Below is a rough projection of where natural resources will be by 2040 in comparison to today.

*Note: these numbers are recorded in billion kilowatt-hours (kWh)

  • Wind: 600 kWh → 900 kWh
  • Solar: 390 kWh → 470 kWh
  • Geothermal: 380 kWh → 410 kWh
  • MSW/LFG: 290 kWh → 310 kWh
  • Hydro: 280 kWh → 300 kWh

Fossil fuels are finite, rapidly depleting resources that will eventually be exhausted. And while renewable energy sources are substantially more efficient today than in years past, several key components will need to fall into place before sustainable energies like solar power replace oil.

Three components of successful solar energy resources

In order for the U.S. to make the transition from oil to solar energy, three major things need to happen:

1. Installation costs must continue to come down. Back in 2014, solar energy cost about 7.2 cents per kilowatt-hour, and that number has dropped to average about 5 cents per kilowatt-hour as of December 2015. Natural gas comes in at about 6.1 cents per kilowatt-hour. This is a notable drop from previous solar energy costs, and it is now competitive with other fuel costs in many areas.

2. Technologies that provide affordable means of improved cell efficiency  and storage need to be developed and distributed. Take, for example, the distribution of solar panels. Below are four leading solar panel brands, along with their record efficiency, and shipping history.

  • First Solar has 18.6% efficiency. They’ve shipped millions.
  • Panasonic offers 22.5% efficiency and has also shipped millions.
  • SunPower has 22.4% efficiency. They’ve shipped millions, too.
  • SolarCity’s panels have 22.04% module efficiency but is still in the production stage.

The pricing for these leading brands, however, is still beyond what many average home and business owners can afford. Furthermore, these solar companies will need to be shipping billions of panels per year if they have any hope of contending with current gas and electric.

3. Last, and perhaps most profoundly, solar energy has to be deeply integrated into society. Despite positive projections and massive advances in solar technology, the unfortunate truth is that renewable resources may not be legitimately considered until fossil fuels are nearly exhausted, or when politicians and citizens conceptualize the fact that solar power is already competitive with environmental, energy security, and other social costs.

When looking at the big picture, solar power technology has come a long way and will continue to make monumental advances in the future. It will most likely follow more of an S-curve, similar to other technology adoption patterns. Therefore, the adoption for solar power is exponentially becoming more widespread. All in all, it’s not a matter of if solar power will replace gas, it’s simply a matter of when.

About the author

Hayden Beck is a freelance writer who contributes content to multiple online publications. Recently, he has worked with Legend Solar. Hayden’s focus includes writing about solar power and green industry trends. Hayden is committed to helping individuals learn more about renewable energy and new bio-technologies.